Harry's Gang: Energy woes bring me back to the late 1970s
March 11, 2022
With the price of energy rising rapidly, I started getting a little sentimental over the energy crisis many of us remember from the late 1970s.
I was in about the eighth grade when my father, struggling to make ends meet in his tavern along the North Shore, had a woodburning stove installed in our basement. Times had been tough: not only was my father inexperienced at running a tavern, the economy was in rough shape in Lake County. The railroad and the taconite plant were laying off workers, and tourism had crawled to a standstill as the Reserve Mining issues scared people away from the shore, fearing they would get cancer from the water. By 1979, things were looking better, but with a family of seven children, my dad needed to stretch every dollar.
An unemployed welder from church had built the stove, which was solid and heavy, and helped install it in our basement. Now, all we needed was some wood to burn in it. In small towns like Two Harbors, people talk, and it wasn’t long before someone offered my dad a truckload of logs, delivered to our house, at a very reasonable price. My dad, who had probably never built a fire in his life, jumped at the opportunity and soon there was a pile of 12-foot logs higher than my head stacked in our front lawn.
It didn’t take a rocket scientist to realize those 12-foot logs would never fit into our wood stove. Relying on more advice from people who patronized the tavern, Dad was convinced that his three strong sons (of which I was one) could easily cut and split that wood in plenty of time for winter to come. It was only April, which gave us the whole summer.
My brothers, smarter than I, quickly realized the futility of our task and quit cutting that wood after the first week. I, on the other hand, took it as a challenge. Every day after school, I climbed that pile of wood with the small electric chainsaw my mother had bought from Sears. Equipped with a wrench in one pocket to tighten the blade every few minutes in one pocket, and a circular file in the other pocket to sharpen the blades on the saw, I figured I could cut up those logs before school started in the fall. Boy, was I mistaken.
Meanwhile, summer came and a crew of road construction workers booked rooms in our motel. Every evening, I’d help my dad feed them and serve them a few beers until it was time for me to go home. After a couple months of this routine, I had gotten to know the crew pretty well, and they took a liking to this odd young teenager. They enjoyed teasing me on the slow progress I was making on my wall of logs, goodnaturedly, I hope, and I gave it right back to them. It was a pretty pleasant way to spend that summer before ninth grade. I felt grown up.
One Thursday evening, the foreman announced to his crew that, when they returned the next week, everyone was to bring their chainsaws from home. He had apparently noticed that I had made only a small dent in that pile over all that time. Monday evening, nine men with chainsaws cut the rest of that woodpile in about 45 minutes, then helped me stack it into a big pile to split. The next day, they had borrowed a splitter and we had all that wood split by sundown. It was the hardest I had ever worked in my life to that point and I went home exhausted.
The next day I fed them a big meal, which my dad would not let me charge them for, and the guys drank a few more beers than normal and laughed a little louder than usual. Still sore from the marathon wood cutting and splitting, I managed to serve them well past my normal quitting time, and the next day I slept in. When I woke, all the guys had checked out of the motel. The road construction job was done, and I never saw those guys again.
That winter, I tried to keep the fire going in our basement to save fuel, but it made the house smell like woodstove and my sisters complained about the smell on their clothes. On Christmas Eve, with the whole family home for the holiday, the cold weather caused a backdraft and the basement filled with smoke while everyone was sleeping. That was the last straw. My mother, no longer willing to risk losing her family to asphyxiation, banned the wood stove and it never held a fire again.
I still have that stove, stored in my garage. I’m sure I learned a valuable lesson from all this. Whatever lesson I learned, however, I am pretty sure my wife won’t let me install that stove in our house during this current energy crisis. Too much work.